Apr 24, 2007

Lessons learned in he wake of a tragedy: Firsthand accounts from Tuesday's convocation

by Joanne Tang, News Editor
I woke up Tuesday morning tired but satisfied with the previous night’s work at the newspaper. As I walked around my room searching for a missing shoe, my phone rang. It was Hilary, the Opinion Editor, and she asked if I was going to Blacksburg for the convocation ceremony.

For the last four years I have been a journalism student, covering special convocations, building projects and academic life. This was different. This kind of national event didn’t involve writing from AP wire reports. I was going to have a “real” learning experience.

With Hilary, Marcelo, the Life Editor and Alex, the Photography Editor, I hopped in a car with  our equipment in tow, ready for the unknown and headed for Blacksburg, Virginia. What I found stopped me in my tracks, made me re-evaluate my role as a journalist, made me question my abilities and ultimately left me with better perspective.

I had never seen media coverage like this before, and I admit it was exciting.

Converging on the Virginia Tech campus, professional journalists from all over the world were combing the campus for people to speak to. Satellite trucks with their massive dishes on top, almost as high as the vehicle itself, were parked neatly beside each other. This was the big time, I was watching the pros hard at work. It was a feeding frenzy of sound bites, descriptions of tears and despondent eyes. Some journalists were quickly scribbling on notebooks, talking on cell phones and tapping on Blackberrys.

The broadcasters were directing their cameramen, telling them where to find the best shots. Those from major networks had several people carrying their equipment, ducklings with boom mics. The first task was to make our way inside the coliseum for the memorial service, where the governor and president were speaking. Unfortunately, it was packed, and Secret Service agents, with serious black suits and equally serious facial expressions, would not let us in. We ended up sitting in the football stadium where thousands of people had gathered after the coliseum had filled to capacity.
After the convocation, we began to wander around campus, getting photos of West Ambler Johnston and Norris.

Outside Patton Hall, an engineering building, a young man wearing a crisp white shirt and glasses stood with two adults. They talked quietly about Monday’s events, oblivious to my presence. The young man recounted his side of the story, from being in one of the classrooms and hearing the gunfire, to being near those hurt or killed. As he spoke, he shook as if reliving his memories. One of the adults finally noticed me and asked the student if he was up to speaking with someone. Before he could answer, a woman stepped in and adamantly said no. It wasn’t the rejection that bothered me, it was the look she gave. It was a look of disdain that is given by people who either don’t like journalists or have been offended by one recently. I had never encountered that kind of hostility before. It stunned me.

Journalists for the most part, I think, are kind and caring people. They understand grief, they understand loss, and they try to give people their privacy. At the same time, they are there to communicate that pain to the rest of the world, to give others a way of understanding. It hadn’t occurred to me until then that I was now part of a collective of people who are sometimes liked but often hated. I didn’t enjoy that look of disdain, but I understood.

I don’t blame people for their perception of the media. Many members of the media, and I include myself in this group, can be harsh and imposing. Journalism students watch the pros leave their emotions at the door and keep their composure, and we try to emulate that. I think somewhere along the way, instead of checking in our emotions and picking them up at the end of the day, some of us start to leave them there permanently. I learned on Tuesday that leaving your emotions at the door all the time is a heavy price for any journalist. Sometimes, bringing your emotions in with you is better. It keeps you human.

At 8:30 p.m. outside Burress Hall, I spoke to a woman and her daughter. Hearing their words, I wanted to cry myself. I felt the tears coming. I saw fright, worry and tiredness in their eyes. I saw the crumpled and reused tissues in their hands, the wet spots on their sleeves where tissues stopped being useful. As I thanked them for their words, I looked out at the sea of maroon and orange, and in that moment, the culmination of all the rollercoaster emotions of the day hit me like a ton of bricks. I had not been there on Monday, I didn’t know anyone who was hurt or killed, but I felt a small fraction of their helplessness, and it was the worst feeling I have ever had. It gave me perspective, even at the cost of being a tiny bit scarred myself, and I am better for it.

There is value in bringing a bit of you, putting it on the line for others to see. After all, they’re in full view, sobbing without notice as to who is watching. To witness that for myself was difficult and moving. To feel it and be part of it in a very tiny way was humanizing on a level that most journalism classes do not and cannot teach.

If everything is a mission field, then Christian journalists should bring their vulnerability to the table when they ask someone to talk. We have to be an example, to show people that there are good journalists out there who have a heart, to defy the stereotype.

When I stopped looking at it as just a journalist, and started looking at it more as a Christian, I think I fully recognized the honor and value in being in the field. Journalists have to convey emotion, show the fragility of life and at the same time encourage and move others to action. I don’t think any of that can be done without the price of feeling a bit of that pain yourself.   

Somewhere during the day I stopped writing and just listened. Really listened to the words of comfort being exchanged, the wailing and the silence. I arrived ready to cover the big story but I left drained and without proper words to explain what I had seen. I also left with people’s faces in my mind, their looks of worry and disbelief. A professor shaking her head in utter shock as she watched students sign a memorial. A student proud in orange and maroon drawing a cross on a memorial board. A student hauling laundry to the curb, ready to leave the home that became a nightmare.

Looking at the events of Tuesday, I am incredibly proud to be a journalist. I have seen the hardship in Blacksburg and I have returned a better person with a better perception. I found myself crying Tuesday night as I sat in my apartment. I was tired, messy and all of my sadness came rushing to me all in one minute. I would never have words sufficient enough to take away any of the pain that people felt that day. Rather, it is the people at Virginia Tech who have given me something. I have learned from them the need to feel, the need to stop leaving my emotions at the door all the time. I also learned that being objective does not mean you stop caring about people and the world. If anything, being a journalist means you must care more about the world. I feel that I am now finally ready to be the journalist I have always wanted to be and to accept my role in the world without reservations.

Contact Joanne Tang at jtang@liberty.edu.
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